How to organize the unorganized

Another query comes in and another blog post comes out…. I received an e-mail with a question that was so good that I immediately answered the writer AND told him I would turn it into a blog post. His question, to put it succinctly was “How could he organize the unorganized?” This is a question nearly every photographer working digitally may have to face.

The initial query came to me as:

I just read the Media Pro article you wrote. I was also very influenced by Peter Krogh and I still am using MediaPro 2, which replaced many hundreds of contact sheets and enables me to research and edit my entire career of negatives to then locate them for scanning in about 5 minutes.

However, since shooting with digital cameras for the last 8 or 10 years, I’ve not bothered to start a library of single images, and this week, it came to haunt me. I missed a deadline for a lucrative project and I have vowed to organize my work so that this never happens again.

So – your article dealt with naming and keywording and saving material on DVD’s etc, right out of the camera. Great, but I’m trying to get started with all the files that I can’t even find, because many of them have name changes, or still have the camera file numbers, but essentially, there is no consistent filing system. Renaming happened frequently like inserting the name of a specific project, and/or saving files on more than one of four hard drives – and often with file names changed.

Can you suggest a book, or tutorial for dealing with this mess? I’m afraid I’m going to have to learn some library arts at this point.

I responded:

Good to know we both look to Peter Krogh, the man behind the DAM book, an excellent book on digital asset management for photographers. I assume you have scoured his helpful web site.

And read: what-is-my-naming-convention-and-how-did-i-come-up-with-it

As well as: what-is-a-naming-convention-and-why-do-you-need-one

and one-photographers-strategy-image-archiving-part-one-two

as well as one-photographers-strategy-image-archiving-part-two-two

All of these articles deal with how I organize images as I create them. Keep in mind that having some system to do this going forward, from today onward is imperative! So reading those articles and committing to some system from now on is half the battle.

The real question is, how do you go back and start to organize an existing archive after years of NOT having done much organization?

A few things:

I do not have ONE master archive but I am unusual. I mention that because, I am guessing, building a master archive is a goal of yours. It is also a monstrous undertaking so I would set that aside for now and concentrate on just getting organized.

I do have a master system, which helps me get where I need to go so I can find images in a hurry. To understand my needs, look over all those blogs. Some people who have read those, tell me my system falls down in certain areas. They are probably right in terms of what they want out of their archiving system. On the other hand, it works well for me AND it is easy for me to implement, so I keep using it. An in-depth system that is so complex and hard to implement that you never use it isn’t really a system at all, but just a waste of time and energy.

If I were starting from scratch to organize the unorganized, I would start by scouring the web to see what other folks have written about organizing ANY kind of digital assets after the fact. I would see what you can learn from that. The reality is photographers are dealing with images, but we are really dealing with digital files. Music archivists, law firm librarians, etc. are ALL people who have had to go back and organize the unorganized.

Then I would develop a strategy and a naming convention. Here is a naming convention handout to look at.

After that, set aside an hour a day (no more since this is mind- numbing work) and start SLOWLY going backwards to rename all the old stuff, working with ONE unchanging naming convention. I would do the renaming last, after researching and resolving the archive/library/hierarchy issue.

The overarching structure of what you need the system to do will dictate the approach you should take. So, after you look at what you have, develop that structure, adopt a naming convention, THEN go back and rename each item. YES, it is a two step process, but once you commit to an approach you have to stick to it. I would not set up an archive/library and commit to one hierarchy without going over the entire archive to better understand what you have.

Trying to organize the unorganized is something worth careful research and time. On the other hand, no system is perfect, so don’t let your desire for a perfect system stop you from building a very good one.

PS: I am teaching a workflow class Surviving & Thriving with Digital Workflow in Woodstock, N.Y. in October if you want to learn even more.

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